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By Rana Sadik
At this point in time, I have spent half my life as a Palestinian in the Gulf and the other half as a “Palestinian” in the Gulf. What’s the difference between Palestinian and “Palestinian?”
Prior to the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf was open to the Palestinians. Our migration began before 1948 in a trickle and then intensified after each of the markers in our history - 1948 and 1967. My father came as a working professional who was employed by a development fund, and my father-in-law came as an engineer in the government sector. They were representative of the Palestinian community that was growing not only in size but also in roots. My Palestinian community began to lay the foundations of building a Palestinian state, while in the diaspora, and the simultaneous building of our lives in the Gulf.
The Gulf was awash with support, both financially and morally, for the Palestinians. We integrated into all sectors of employment as professionals and blue-collar workers, in governmental agencies, the private sector, and the NGO sector. The Gulf allowed us to freely express our feelings of nationalism and displacement. Naji Al-Ali, an outspoken and openly critical caricaturist of the political landscape, emerged from the Gulf, later to be exiled to London out of fear, not of Arab states, but of his own people. We were allowed to organise ourselves politically and openly fundraise. In a post-9/11 world, this seems almost absurd, but we were never short of fundraising events over weekends, be it for a particular town, humanitarian need, or a political faction. How can I forget that the PLO was conceived in Kuwait?!
Palestinian assimilation into the Gulf societies never really happened. We always carried our story with us. We were always reminded that we would return. My father waited; I am still waiting; and I have taught my children to wait.
Gulf customs have not been fused with my Palestinian identity, neither physically nor mentally. Gulf societies are closed by nature; there is no melting pot here. We held on to our customs and traditions. We adopted a Western way of dress rather than the traditional dishdash and abaya. We never mixed our Arabic dialect with that of the local Gulf inhabitants. We ate our traditional foods, and we socialized as we might have in Palestine, as families and mixed societies. The only crossroads between the Gulf societies and us were that many of us shared the same religious beliefs.
Palestinian artists in the Gulf painted Palestinian landscapes, never alluding to their actual physical surroundings. The themes of Ismail Shamout, an instantly recognizable name in Palestinian art, never reflected his own environment. He always transported his audience to Palestine. Will art historians look back on Palestinian artists of that era as the Romantics? Today we have great artists who understand that our lives are here. Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s iconic image captured, through his lens, a Palestinian in a keffiyeh in the desert of the Gulf.
Our story was always included in the Gulf education systems, with often a chapter or two dedicated to our history. Our chapters have now been replaced with their more recent history.
My children are third-generation Palestinian refugees in the Gulf. You couldn’t tell them apart from any other kid growing up outside this region. The dichotomy of their lives is beyond their comprehension. Later they will grasp who they are because they are different from others. They will be on the outside here and they will be on the outside there.
Remembrance is a central theme of being Palestinian in the Gulf. But how I remember being a Palestinian prior to the first Gulf War and being a “Palestinian” after the first Gulf War have taken two separate identities. Prior to the first Gulf War, I was always reminded that I have a cause and that I must continue to struggle for my right of return. After the first Gulf War, I am reminded that I cannot be forgiven for the lack of judgment on the part of a few Palestinians. Palestinians collectively were banned or exiled from some Gulf States. Many were not allowed to return. My community has dwindled in number and become further disenfranchised from society. It often goes unnoticed that our financial situation in the Gulf is at two extremes. At one end we have the super-rich -- in most cases these are the minority Palestinians who were granted a Gulf citizenship and who enjoy benefits almost equal to the native inhabitants. At the other extreme, we have the families that struggle because all the social service benefits we once enjoyed, education included, are no longer open us. My good friend Tayseer Barakat, a prominent businessman in the aviation industry, often tries to match our Gulf community’s needs with benefactors. In addition, the Gulf States have taken on programmes of hiring their nationals rather than foreign labour. We are a migrant labour population. Our roles in these societies are quickly being replaced. Many Palestinian communities in Palestine and Jordan depend on our remittances. Where do we go?
Gulf States deducted 5 percent of our salaries, with our blessing, on behalf of the PLO up until the Iraq invasion. They gave generously to my community here and in Palestine, with conviction; they believed that Palestine was not only a just cause but also the struggle of all Arabs. Were they the product of an education system that was infiltrated with Palestinians as educators? Perhaps. But that generation has gone now. The new generation remembers us as we appeared on CNN at the invasion of Kuwait. But they did not see me. CNN never showed my anguish as a Gulf Palestinian, cringing at the injustice of the occupation. I remain and constitute one of the 40,000, out of the 500,000 Palestinians, left in Kuwait. We refer to the year 1990 as our second exodus.
I have no stories about Palestine to tell my children, like my father did. Maybe I will read them Ghassan Kanafani’s stories about Gulf Palestinians like themselves. Most certainly they will have access to some of the most important documentation of Palestine, which was initiated in the Gulf. The Palestine Land Society is an ongoing project of documenting Palestine’s history, geography, and society. The Palestinian Women’s Union undertook the massive project of collecting and curating a comprehensive collection of traditional Palestinian dress from every village in Palestine.
We remain prominent in the Gulf but not populous like we once were. Prior to the first Gulf War, every Palestinian left a mark in the Gulf. Today I can name for you all the Palestinians who are leaving their marks in the Gulf. The second generation of Palestinians of the Gulf have not forgotten who they are or what their obligations are. The successful programme “Min Osra-ila-Osra” for giving directly to Palestinian families was established by a group of Palestinians in Dubai, which later was adopted as a permanent programme in a major foundation.
You will never come across a Palestinian who will deny his identity, despite being aware that we may not be as popular as before in the Gulf States. Recent politics in Palestine have presented us with an awkward existence in the Gulf.
I do not see myself as an expatriate. I am not an American. When I visit Palestine, they tell me I am “min bara.” And here they tell me I am from there: “Wait to go back.” I am a refugee with no humanitarian needs, but starving for my identity and culture. My struggle is never for gender equality or religion, it is for acceptance.
Palestinians will never forget the contributions that the Gulf States have made to us. The question is: How will the Gulf remember our contributions?
Rana Sadik, a Palestinian social activist and board member of the Welfare Association, resides in Kuwait.
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